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The Bedroom Tax - Grand Designs on Planet Esther

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The Government have long argued that the Bedroom Tax will encourage people who are in their view 'under-occupying' to downsize to smaller accommodation. But on Monday it was put to Esther McVey, the newly promoted 'Minister for the Bedroom Tax', that there is a shortage of one bedroom properties for people to move to - nothing new here - but at the same time three bedroom properties are becoming increasingly hard to let - a concerning new development.

Rarely lost for words, her answer was to blame councils and housing associations, suggesting that they had had three years to convert these houses to smaller ones.

The more I thought about this the more ridiculous it seemed.

Planet Esther

A typical three bedroom council house would likely have two double and one single bedroom, a single 'public' room and a kitchen and bathroom. These rooms would probably be laid out over two floors.

Unless Esther McVey was suggesting separate tenants share facilities, just how would this work?

While the upstairs could at some expense be converted into a one-bedroom flat - with one bedroom becoming the living room and another being split into a kitchen and bathroom - access would still be via the downstairs 'flat'.

Downstairs there would be a kitchen and one room. Would this be subdivided in some way? What about windows? Or left as a bedsit? And the bathroom - should the landlord build an extension? At what cost? Or maybe one of those temporary chemical toilets used at events could be placed outside the back door? Oh wait a minute, didn't we do away with outside toilets years ago? Perhaps not on 'Planet Esther'.

Savings unlikely

There is mounting evidence that the expected savings from the Bedroom Tax will not arise. The Centre for Housing Studies at York University this week published research based on the real experience of four reasonably sized housing associations in the North of England in the first few months of implementation. They highlighted Government projections that the policy would save £480million from the Housing Benefit bill in 2013/14, and £450million 2014/15.

These estimates assumed that no one would move, but in fact some people have, and they've gone to the private rented sector. There the level of benefit paid out on one bedroom accommodation is far higher than the pre-Bedroom Tax amount for tenants in two bedroom council or housing association places.

Overall York calculates that if similar patterns are found elsewhere the estimated savings will be around £320million in the first year. When you factor in the cost of Discretionary Housing Payments savings reduce further to £255million. For many councils there are also increased administrative costs from dealing with all the DHP applications.

Tenants not on housing benefit and those who in retirement are increasingly likely to be affected, as councils and housing associations start planning for reduced modernisation programmes and/or rent increases because f the higher level of rent arrears they are facing.

Clegg's stock answer
When Nick Clegg was pressed on this on Tuesday, his stock answer was to repeat that the Bedroom Tax just brings the social rented sector into line with the rules applied to the private rented sector by the previous Labour government. But these were never imposed retrospectively. Instead they only applied as tenants moved into a new tenancy. People were never forced to 'take the hit' before finding somewhere of a suitable size, as they are with the Bedroom Tax.

All of these problems were flagged up when the Bedroom Tax was first announced. Sometimes Ministers accuse those who oppose their changes of 'scaremongering'. Unfortunately our concerns have been borne out, and the results are indeed scary.